Depleted uranium (and skeptical thinking)

I always try to emphasize that my non-belief is not a doctrine (how can it be?), but the outcome of a rational epistemology. Good critical thinking skills, of course, should not apply exclusively to the supernatural. That's why a lot of non-believers are also skeptics about alternative medicine, psychics, the Illuminati, and whatnot. But if there's one truth about critical thinking, it's that it can easily be compartmentalized.

There are some exceptionally smart people who go to great lengths to rationalize absurd beliefs, who fail to apply critical thinking skills to one area or another when, on the whole, they are generally rational individuals. That's why I often like to point out, when I'm accused of painting theists as stupid because I think they adhere to an irrational belief, that Isaac Newton – one of the most brilliant minds that ever lived – spent much of his life as an alchemist. You can be very smart, in general, and very wrong about specific things.

This will ruin your day
So, depleted uranium. This was a random thing that popped into my head after I saw a graphic image of a beheading purportedly carried out by Islamic fundamentalists in Thailand. While the beheaded corpse (purportedly of a 9-year-old child) was very real and unsettling, I was hesitant to accept the entire backstory on its face simply because it was posted on a virulently anti-Muslim website. It reminded me of a few years ago, when news about depleted uranium being used in Iraq was responsible for all manner of birth defects.

These claims popped up all over the internet and were accompanied by disturbing, graphic pictures of grotesquely malformed children and fetuses. If you do a Google image search for 'depleted uranium', you'll find many such images. And, back in the day, my MySpace page (I know right) was lit up with references to the horrors of depleted uranium, supposedly responsible not only for those grotesque birth defects, but also high rates of cancer and the nebulous Gulf War Syndrome. But are those really pictures of children affected by depleted uranium?

Turns, out, probably not. A fact sheet published by the World Heath Organization shows no credible link between DU and the above health problems, and a review of literature by the RAND corporation found no significant harmful effects. Accordingly, we haven't heard much about DU, even from activists, over the last five years or so.

But when it was the topic du jour, I was admittedly swept up in the activist fervor. I saw the pictures, and was horrified. It further entrenched my resentment of an unnecessary and bloody war that had already cost many thousands of innocent lives. At the time, it didn't occur to me to simply ask some basic skeptical questions. What are the sources of these claims? What scientific literature is available? And, perhaps most importantly, are those pictures of deformed babies really the direct result of DU, or are they random images of birth defects simply attached to an alarmist story?

A basic truth of human behavior is that we do not always think rationally. It's pretty well established that we're often inclined to ignore our faculties of reason and go with our gut instead. That's why otherwise intelligent people will go to great lengths to rationalize beliefs that are ultimately rooted in emotions. And it's why, when we see pictures of deformed babies or beheaded children with the caption "_____ was the cause of this horror!", we tend to align our beliefs with our emotions rather than pausing to ask whether everything is as it seems.

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